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Why Do We Call It 'Maundy Thursday' and 'Good Friday?"

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Last week I heard a sermon by a young minister who had not been out of seminary all that long. In his effort to appear knowledgeable and profound, he talked about Holy Week in deep theological terms reminiscent of seminary classes, and people in the pews had difficulty comprehending what he was talking about. Many of them expressed disappointed in not understanding what he was saying, admitting that they did not know the meaning of "Maundy" Thursday and why the day Jesus was crucified is called "Good" Friday.

Let's take a look at these two holy days.

Maundy Thursday. The word "Maundy" comes to us as an Anglo-French word derived from the Latin "mandatum," which means "commandment." It refers to when Jesus, in the Upper Room during the Last Super, said to the disciples: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." (John 13:34, Revised Standard Version).

Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) is the Thursday before Easter. Most Christian churches in mainline denominations, and some of the more fundamental churches, commemorate Maundy Thursday in some way, but the types of services vary greatly.

Since the focus of Maundy Thursday is on the Upper Room and the Last Super, the celebration of Holy Communion or the Eucharist is one of most ancient Christian practices of all Maundy Thursday commemorations. However, the Sacrament is celebrated in some churches as part of an evening meal in a less formal setting than the church sanctuary, reminiscent of the setting of the original Last Supper.

In addition, many churches will observe some variation of the ancient service of Tenebrae, the Latin word for candles. It is a service of candles accompanied by various readings of scripture and the gradual extinguishing of candles, which cast shadows of the Cross in different dimensions on the walls. Eventually the worshippers are left for a minute or two in total darkness, signifying the coming death of Jesus. Tenebrae is usually observed as an integrated part of some kind of worship service and accompanied by celebrating the Sacrament.

In recent years, including foot-washing as part of the evening's observance of Maundy Thursday has become popular, even in mainline denominations. Such services are reminiscent of the washing of feet by Jesus in the Upper Room during the Last Super and accentuate the theme of humility and service (John's Gospel, 13:1-20).

Good Friday. The celebration of Good Friday is ancient, dating at least to the 4th century. But why is it called a "good" day? The exact details of what happened on that original Friday are somewhat different in the four Gospels, but this is what we are able to piece together.

Either very late on Maundy Thursday or in the early hours of Friday, after the Last Super, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to meditate. When he was there, one of his disciples betrayed him by leading the soldiers to him and portraying him as a threat to both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was arrested and immediately taken before the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court), where he was found guilty. From there he was taken to stand before Pilate (Roman manager of Judea, southern division of Palestine), thereafter taken to face Herod (Roman king of Judea), and then back to Pilate again. He was condemned to death. He was stripped of all human dignity: scourged, crowned with thorns, spat upon, made to carry a cross through the streets, actually nailed to the cross, and finally having to suffer the slow and painful death of crucifixion from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. After he died, he was taken from the cross and buried in a tomb.

How is it possible to characterize the horrific events of that day as "good"? How is it that the cross of that Friday has become the universal symbol of Christendom? This would have gone down in history as just another death of a renegade who tried to overthrow Jewish and Roman officials had it not been for what followed.

The third day later it was discovered that Jesus was no longer in the tomb. At first it was thought that perhaps the body had been stolen. But guards had been placed at the entrance of the tomb to keep that from happening, and then Jesus appeared to the disciples. It was clear that he had overcome death.

The Apostles' Creed, well known outline of the Christian faith ascribed to the early Disciples and used in public worship, puts it in broad but simple terms. Quoting from parts of the Creed relating directly to Good Friday: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who . . . suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried . . . the third day he rose again from the dead: he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty . . . I believe in . . . the life everlasting."

That terrible Friday has been called Good Friday because it led to the Resurrection of Jesus and his victory over death and sin and the celebration of Easter, the very pinnacle of Christian celebrations. Although Christians, from the very fundamental to the very liberal, vary in their interpretations of exactly how the death of Jesus on the cross frees man from his sins and gives him everlasting life, and exactly what everlasting life means, they all agree that it took the death and burial of Jesus on that Friday to make the victory of the Resurrection possible. John simply says: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (3:16 RSV)

Services of worship on Good Friday differ, but all are solemn in tone and the liturgical color is black. Some denominations have traditional types of worship services. Many Protestant churches participate in ecumenical or union services from 12 noon to 3:00 p.m., the traditional hours for commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus. These services usually focus on the seven last sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, and the worshippers are free to come and go at will.